Believe it or not, the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution is right around the corner. On this episode, Devin and Lauren discuss how some state agencies and communities are preparing for the big event (from 2025-2033), and how local historians can make the most of the commemoration. We also highlight a pair of William G. Pomeroy Foundation programs designed to recognize sites of the Revolution and patriot burials.
Programs of Focus: Patriot Burials, Revolutionary America, LaFayette Trail
Guests: Daniel Mackay, deputy commissioner for historic preservation at the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation
A New York Minute In History is a production of the New York State Museum, WAMC, and Archivist Media, with support from the William G. Pomeroy Foundation. This episode was produced by Jesse King. Our theme is “Begrudge” by Darby.
American Association for State and Local History, The Field Guide for the Semiquincentennial: Making History at 250(2021)
Michael D. Hattem, Past and Prologue: Politics and Memory in the American Revolution (2020)
Alan Taylor, American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804 (2016)
Rachel Herrmann, No Useless Mouth: Waging War and Fighting Hunger in the American Revolution (2019)
Consider the Source, New York Learning Activities
Fort Ticonderoga, Lesson Plans
American Revolution Museum, Teacher Resource Guides
Devin: Welcome to A New York Minute in History. I’m Devin lander, the New York state historian.
Lauren: And I’m Lauren Roberts, the historian for Saratoga County. This month, instead of focusing on an individual marker, we’re going to talk about two different marker programs offered by the William G. Pomeroy Foundation that focus on the upcoming 250th anniversary of the American Revolution. The dates of the Revolution are generally understood to be 1775-1783, which recognizes [the battles of] Lexington and Concord as the start of the American Revolution, and the signing of the Treaty of Paris as the end of the war. Certainly, there are other important events that actually happened before 1775 that are worth commemorating. We’re only about a year away from the 250th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party. But as far as the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution, those dates are 2025-2033.
Devin: It’s coming soon, and these types of projects take a lot of planning. At the state level, we’ve been in conversations about the 250th, as we call it, since 2018, when we had meetings with some of our sister agencies. I work for the New York State Museum, so there were representatives from the state libraries, state archives, state parks, the “I Love New York” campaign, and some of our federal historic sites, including the Saratoga Battlefield. And we were discussing what can we learn from things like the Bicentennial – what was successful, what wasn’t successful? The first thing that we came to the conclusion of is that we’re looking at a commemoration as opposed to a celebration. Commemorations are, I think, more balanced. They look at the success of the American Revolution, as well as the kind of incomplete factors that are in play – who the Revolution was and wasn’t for. The other thing that we quickly realized, was that we really needed to be looking at the Revolution as kind of the beginning point for the discussion of the “unfinished revolution,” and attempts that have been made, throughout New York and U.S. history, to be more inclusive, to include groups who were not part of the original Revolution. These groups included women, who couldn’t vote at the time, but New York state played an immense role in the suffrage movement, obviously 1848 and Seneca Falls being a big part of that. That’s another revolution. So, we at the state level are thinking of the sites of the Revolution that include the battles and the sites directly influencing the era of 1775-1783. But we’re also looking at these sites of revolution that kind of spiraled out from those ideals of liberty and equality, such as the suffrage movement; the Underground Railroad, which New York plays a large role in; the abolition movement; the LGBTQ movement, with places like Stonewall in New York City. So, it’s an ongoing kind of conversation, and it’s a way of looking at history in a way that is comprehensive, and includes new audiences – and I think people who, in the past, just didn’t see themselves in things like the Bicentennial.
Lauren: Not everyone has a battlefield in their backyard or a historic structure that was directly associated with the Revolution. So, some historians, or historical societies in the state, might be looking for guidance on how they can be a part of the commemorations coming up for the 250th. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about the upcoming field guide?
Devin: Yeah, great. Thank you. That’s a project that I’ve been working on with you, Lauren, and your role as a board member of the Association of Public Historians of New York State, as we call APHNYS. And, of course, we just recently issued a podcast from the APHNYS conference. But yeah, the field guide is really an opportunity for us, the Office of State History at the museum, and the Association of Public Historians to come together and create a document that hopefully will be a useful tool for local government historians, give them some ideas and some themes that they can look at and think about [for programming]. We didn’t reinvent the wheel, we took some of the idea from the American Association for State and Local History, which created a national field guide called “Making History at 250: The Field Guide for the Semi-Quincentennial,” which is the big word for the 250th. They published their field guide in 2021. It’s available on their website, and we’ll link to it and our webpage. But we really looked at that and tried to tailor it to New York state.
So, we came up with essentially six themes, and these are very broad. One of our themes is “indigenous history is New York’s history.” And this is a very true statement. We can’t talk about colonial era New York or the American Revolution without talking about the indigenous nations, and the Haudenosaunee and Algonquin peoples that lived here. You know, thinking about those relationships and the kind of alliances that developed throughout the colonial era. Then, obviously, during the American Revolution, there were some indigenous nations and tribes that were allied with the Patriots, or the Americans. And there were others that remained allied with the British. And what did that mean? How did that play out for them? Were they displaced? Were they forced off their lands? Undoubtably, the answer would be yes, at some level, although there are nations that are still present here. So, the story isn’t one of complete disaster. It’s also one of resiliency, of continuing on despite this placement, and despite history of broken treaties, and so on. So that’s one of our themes, and it doesn’t matter where you are in the state of New York, you should be thinking about this theme.
Another theme that we decided to highlight is called “choose your side.” Many historians consider the American Revolution to be the country’s first true Civil War, especially in New York state. This was true in what is now central New York, and western New York was essentially the frontier of that era, and it was a place of conflict. It was a place where loyalists, who remained loyal to the British Crown, fought with their neighbors, who were patriotic and wanted to break away from the crown. It’s a place where, again, indigenous tribes formed alliances, so it was a place of conflict for the indigenous people as well. “Choose your side” really investigates ways that everyday people would have made these decisions. What would make someone become a loyalist, as opposed to a revolutionary? Why were those choices made? What effects did the war itself and the Revolution have on everyday life? For families, for merchants, for farmers? These are things that sometimes we don’t think about, that there was a home front, and there was also a line of conflict.
“Power of place.” How have political boundaries and even geographic boundaries – the natural world, how has that changed over time? And how did that influence the American Revolution and the following revolutions? We know that New York was a battleground of the American Revolution because of its natural geographic features, like the Hudson River, Lake Champlain, the connection to Canada, the connection to New England, and the port city of New York at the time. [They were] all major military targets. These are questions that allow municipal historians and historic sites to think about their own geography and their own political boundary: Did their town exist? When was it formed? Why was it formed? What was happening in the community during this era? And how has the idea of community changed over time?
Lauren: The next theme is “We the People,” which is the opening words of the preamble of the Constitution, of course. While this document was authored by members of the white male political elite, the ideals of the Revolution were not exclusive to them. The events of the Revolution significantly impacted the lives of women, indigenous people, enslaved Africans, free African Americans, and others. This helps to start a discussion about who was left out of the founding vision. And some of the questions that might be raised when you’re trying to plan or create programming around this are, “How did New York’s diverse population experience and influence the events in the American Revolution? When and how did different groups of people gain the status of citizenship? Who is a citizen? And what rights and responsibilities does that include?”
The theme of the “unfinished revolution” is important, because it continues to tell the story of our country over the last 250 years, and what is important to us, in the ways that we have changed and tried to live up to the ideals of the American Revolution over time. Devin, you mentioned before, the struggle for women getting the right to vote, the civil rights struggle for indigenous peoples’ equality. So some of the questions that might help with this type of programming are, “What has the response been to these revolutionary movements within your community? How have the nation and state’s founding documents been used in the ongoing struggles?” For example, in 1848, at Seneca Falls, the Declaration of Sentiments was the document that Elizabeth Cady Stanton authored. And that is directly tied to the Declaration of Independence. She uses much of the same language, but points out that women were left out of that document. And the Declaration of Sentiments looks to be more inclusive, and goes so far as boldly asking for the right to vote in 1848. So, these are all good ideas to continue this conversation, and realize that our journey as a country and as a state doesn’t end in 1783 with a peace treaty.
The final theme is “changing interpretations of the Revolution.” We, as historians, know that interpretations of our past change constantly as more information comes to light, as different perspectives are considered. These things change constantly. Benedict Arnold is a great example. When Arnold was fighting during the battles of Saratoga, he was considered the hero of Saratoga: he fought valiantly, he led the troops, he was much revered. And of course, that changed very abruptly when he became a traitor, and left to fight with the British Army after giving up the plans for West Point. When I was in school, the only thing I knew about Benedict Arnold was that he was a traitor. But now there is certainly more information and research that’s been done to talk about the positive things that he did, that helped the Patriot cause and the Revolution before he became a traitor, and that also points to some of those reasons why he chose to become a traitor. So, there’s always more to the story. And this idea of changing interpretations is definitely something that you can connect to the beliefs of your own community, and how the interpretation of the Revolution has changed over time.
Lauren: Devin, you mentioned the state commission, and I thought I would talk a little bit about what Saratoga County is doing to prepare for the upcoming commemoration. And certainly, there are different ways to go about forming your own commissions, and there are some commissions that are already up and running. I know Westchester [County], they actually have a nonprofit that they have set up, which is one way of doing it. Orange County has a commission set up through the government, which is how Saratoga County has chosen to begin. In 2021, the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution creating a 13-member commission. And we have several different stakeholders in the community that are represented on that commission, including members of the DAR and SAR, which is, of course, the Daughters of the American Revolution and Sons of the American Revolution. We have local historians represented on the commission, historical societies, we have a K-12 educator on the commission, we have a liaison between our living historian reenactor groups in our area, and we also have a liaison with the National Park Service, because, of course, we are lucky enough to have the Saratoga National Historical Park, otherwise known as the Saratoga Battlefield, right in our backyard.
So, this commission started meeting at the beginning of 2022. We have three goals that we have defined, the first of which is to promote education. And part of that is meeting students where they are, and that’s with technology. We’ve got some grants to look at how we can tell our stories and tell new stories through the use of technology. The second goal is to increase heritage tourism. This goes beyond the battlefield itself – Saratoga Battlefield is a wonderful resource, it’s a great place to come and visit, and the rangers offer great programming, but there are also other places that are lesser-known that also deserve recognition. And as long as they’re coming to Saratoga to come to the National Park Service, we can help our community by getting the heritage tourists to stay in local hotels, eat at local dining places, so that we are also experiencing an economic benefit. This will help when you as a local historian or historical society are trying to get funding from local sources, such as a local government. If you can really point to the success of heritage tourism during these commemorations, it will help to get funding for some of the programming and events that you’re trying to plan. The last goal we have is to improve infrastructure surrounding our historic sites. I think it’s important to talk to the younger generation about why they can go and visit these sites – because the people who came before them cared about historic preservation. And I think it also helps students and young people take ownership of what happened in their backyard and to feel a connection. There’s nothing like putting your feet on the ground where history happened. And knowing that this is within a stone’s throw of where they go to school, or where you live – that’s really important. And it helps them take ownership and also care about historic preservation for the future.
So, we’ve already started programming. We’ve done living history programming, we did a siege in combat as part of Path Through History weekend, the fall Path Through History weekend, which is a New York state program. We’ve been working with teachers to try to help get them the tools that they need to relay that information in the classroom. And we’re working on some more programming coming up in 2023.
Devin: You’re really taking the lead, Lauren, and I congratulate you and Saratoga County. You’re ahead of New York state. I love the three goals you have. They’re also the goals, I think, that all of us are going to have. I’ve been speaking with our tourism entities and partners here in the state about the potential that this commemoration has to bring visitors to the state from other places, but also to have visitors who are residents of the state. Sometimes New York has taken a backseat to places like Massachusetts, because of Lexington and Concord, or Virginia in some cases, but it’s inarguable that New York played as significant a role, if not more than anywhere else in North America, during the American Revolution – with the Battle of Saratoga, with the struggle for New York City and Long Island, and the Hudson Valley being such a strategic initiative of the British. So that’s a big initiative of ours, is making sure that we reposition New York where it should be.
I must be clear, as well, that I am not the only one at the state level who was working on this. The commission is co-chaired by my boss, the commissioner of the state Education Department, as well as the commissioner of the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. So, State Parks, as they’re known, is our overseer of our state historic sites. And I spoke with Deputy Commissioner for Historic Preservation Daniel McKay about their plans for the 250th.
Daniel: State Parks is responsible for over 250 parks, recreation areas and historic sites across the state. We are the largest state park system in the country. 44 of those state parks or historic sites have a primary context with the Revolutionary War: Schuyler mansion; home of General Philip Schuyler in Albany; to Newtown Battlefield site outside of Elmira; Fort Ontario and Fort Niagara on the Great Lakes. You know, we have sites really across the full sweep of the state. And while there will be many assets that New York state can deploy to tell the story and link these stories together, the New York state park system is where you can experience the topography, you know, the view that troops faced during the battle at Stony Point, or the lands for the Livingston family, you know, their estate down in Germantown, and the library John Jay was pulling from to inform the Federalist Papers. I’m very pleased that the bulk of physical sites are not owned by the National Park Service in New York state. They’re actually owned by state parks. All of those sites together, I think, work to tell a very effective story, and one that really no other state can replicate.
Devin: That’s a great point, we have a second-to-none park system, and you know better than anyone that, really, the historic preservation movement, in many ways, started in New York state with Washington’s headquarters of being the first historic site that was purchased with state funding.
We’ve talked about past commemorations, mainly the Bicentennial. And although the Bicentennial kind of fell short in a lot of ways, it also was a time of great interest in American history, or reinterest in American history. For example, in New York State, we saw many local historical societies and county historical societies come online during the Bicentennial era. Going back further, to the 150th of the American Revolution, we saw many kinds of legacy projects, including the eventual transfer of Saratoga Battlefield to the National Park Service in the 1930s. We saw the historic marker program come online out of the state department, and many of these things that were directly linked to the state’s commemoration of the 150th. So, if you’re had an open checkbook, a genie’s lamp, and could have a wish come true, what would be a successful commemoration in your regard?
Daniel: Our partners, such as the National Park Service, have already begun subsidizing reinvestment in historic sites and state-owned historic sites with Revolutionary War themes. New York state just received, this summer, $500,000 for a project out of Fort Niagara, and that funding will be available for the next 10 years of the commemorative period. Additionally, the agency has been planning and assessing needs across the historic site system, needs in terms of interpretive opportunities and angles, even the need to create the infrastructure in the forms of computer kiosks that you’ll see deployed across the park system, to direct people from one site in the story to the next. So, if you want to follow the Sullivan campaign across New York state, this interpretive kiosk will give you the ability to link federal, state and local assets that reflect on that campaign and its impacts – you’ll have that all in one system.
It’s clear to me, as I plan for investments across the historic site system, that the Rev war sites in and of themselves have significant capital needs and capital opportunities. We have just taken Philips Manor Hall down in Yonkers through a $15 million restoration and exhibit transformation. That site, really, is perhaps the first one you might visit to understand the early wealth that was being established in the colonies. The interactions that were happening between increasingly rich white landowners and the Native American and enslaved African communities upon whom that whose backs that white wealth was created. So that type of transformative investment we would like to make in other locations. In some cases, how we can improve the opportunity of a site is to acquire additional land. It means planning for new visitor centers. It means planning new interpretation exhibit upgrades, that I think will not only tell a more expansive story, but tell it in a more engaging fashion. It means training our staff to expect and respond to a more diverse audience. We’re investing in the tools that we hope will engage and not only get someone to visit for the very first time, but actually have them come back for a second, third time for a deeper, richer, more expansive experience.
Lauren: The William G. Pomeroy Foundation offers two different marker grant programs directly related to the Revolution. The first is called “Patriot Burials,” and this is in partnership with the Sons of the American Revolution. It offers an opportunity to apply for historic markers to be placed in locations where Revolutionary War Patriots are buried. The Patriot Burial marker grants are available to SAR chapters who have a signed agreement with the Pomeroy Foundation, and you can find a list of those on their website. We have several patriot burials that are unmarked across New York state, and this program will help bring to light, or give recognition to many of those patriots who have not been recognized in the past.
The second marker program was just launched at the end of October. This one is in partnership with the Daughters of the American Revolution, and it’s called “Revolutionary America.” And these markers are made to commemorate points of interest significant to America during the period 1775-1783. And it’s important to note that these markers are meant to commemorate places that don’t already have a marker, so they would be possibly new research or places that haven’t been recognized in the past. Although we’re a couple years out, time is ticking. And we need to start doing the research on these markers now so that we have time to put them in place and they’re up for the commemoration.
Devin: I think the 250th really presents the historical community, historians, and historic sites with a real opportunity to learn more about the history of our state and our country, how our government was formed, why it was formed, and the mechanisms in which change has taken place over time. I think that’s a very important piece of the puzzle of our history and our shared history – that this is a system that can change over time, and it’s something that you know, has stood as a democracy for 250 years. And again, I think it’s an opportunity to really help our historic sites and our museums and our local historians who have been functioning during an era of austerity for a variety of reasons, most recently, the pandemic. Visitorship certainly plummeted when the doors were shut, and you know, that has caused problems financially and with sustainability going forward. The commemoration is really a way to accentuate these resources, to help them and also preserve them for the future.
A New York Minute In History is a production of the New York State Museum, WAMC, and Archivist Media, with support from the William G. Pomeroy Foundation. This episode was produced by Jesse King. Our theme is “Begrudge” by Darby.